tv Democracy Now LINKTV October 17, 2014 3:00pm-4:01pm PDT
funding for this program was provided by... at vacation retreats in ancient mexico, aztec kings bathe while their armies sack and burn a remote town. thousands of captives are marched to the capital where their hearts are offered to gods who sanctioned conquest. every city and town in the empire pays tribute
in exact amount and kind as specified by the aztecs, or risks horrible consequences. in the forests and jungles of other realms, maya kings rule great cities with the force of their own personalities. they build temples and huge stone billboards to prop up royal dynasties that have little actual power. they perform gruesome rituals that require the skins of other people. they go to war and capture players for their ball games -- games where the losers never play again. today, inside ancient pyramids, archaeologists face real danger to bring the story of these kings and their politics out of the past.
before the arrival of europeans, two extraordinary civilizations flourished in mesoamerica. both the aztecs and the maya had cultures of startling sophistication, and political systems that were enormously complex. archaeologists are intrigued by ancient political systems. they want to know how these systems were organized
and how they evolved. archaeologist arthur demarest. throughout the course of human history, societies have bece ever more complex. political systems have developed -- some successfully, expanding and growing, while othersecline and disintegrate. what are the differences between these societies ? why do some political systems succeed and others fail ? that's one of the central questions that we have to address in archaeology. keach: the aztec political system was one of the great success stories of all pre-industrial societies. they created a rich and powerful empire that dominated millions of people. they lived in the valley of mexico in the area that is now mexico city. before coming to power, the aztecs were just one of a number of small city-states located in the region.
archaeologist william sanders. between 1200 a.d. and 1428, the area was occupied by 40 competing states. occasionally, one of these states would conquer some of the others and form a small empire for one or two generations. but then it would collapse again. in 1428, however, things changed dramatically. three of these states overthrow their lord, form a military alliance, and embark on a career of conquest that is to carry them over all of mesoamerica. keach: within less than a century, the aztecs had conquered hundreds of formerly independent states, established provincial capitals, and controlled a population of five to six million people. the center of the aztec empire was the city of tenochtitlan, an island in the middle of an extensive lake system.
today, tenochtitlan is buried in 1978, workers digging ditches for electric cable hit something hard. it turned out to be a huge stone sculpture depicting an aztec goddess. excavations around the sculpture eventually led to the discovery of a large complex of buildings directly below the streets of mexico city. what had been uncovered were the remains of the templo mayor, the religious heart of the aztec empire. nested inside the final building were the ruins of six earlier structures. one of the earliest was an almost complete temple, including a sculpture which once held the hearts of sacrificial victims.
the main structure was an enormous pyramid with two temples at the top -- one built to the aztec god of water, the other to the god of war. these two deities had special significance for the aztecs. mexican archaeologist eduardo matos. interpreter: these two elements, water and war, were the basis of the empire, what sustained the aztecs -- one fundamentally and the other economically. for this reason, one of the main temples was dedicated to water, to agricultural production, the fertility of the land. and the other temple was dedicated to war, the conquest of other people. keach: their religion sanctioned conquest, but that was not enough for the aztecs. they also rewrote their history to clothe themselves in the mantle of divine authority.
sanders: the uncle of the aztec ruler came to him and said, "i think we should burn the books. "they only deceive the common people. "and let's write true history --" meaning official history, of course. and this history tells the story of a chosen people -- it's very much like the story of the israelites -- a chosen people who start up in northern mexico at a place called aztlan -- that's where they got their name "azteca" from -- start in aztlan under the leadership of a leader who later on becomes their god, huitzilopochtli, but at that time he was a human being. he tries to tell them to keep going, keep going. they haven't reached the promised land yet. finally, they arrive in the valley of mexico, and on an island in the lake they see an eagle land with a serpent in its claws on a nopal cactus. and huitzilopochtli says that's the place that you are destined to form your great kingdom, and you are going to be the sun god's chosen people, and your mission in life
is to go out and capture enemy warriors and sacrifice their hearts to sustain the sun. keach: the aztecs followed huitzilopochtli's instructions to the letter and carried out human sacrifice on a scale without precedent. each year, thousands of people would be led up the steps of the templo mayor to have their hearts cut from their bodies with knives made of volcanic glass. without human sacrifices, the aztecs believed the gods would die and the world would end. but this religious belief also served the interest of the state. it sanctioned a mission of conquest. it mandated war. cultural anthropologist ross hassig. when the aztecs decided to go to war, this was a decision that was reached by the king in consultation with his counselors, including the major military leaders. once they made the decision, this was announced to the populace
in the main squares, and an army was recruited. it usually took five to eight days to gather the men, and the men were retrained. and the weapons were issued from the central armories, and supplies were gathered. now, how many men were gathered depended upon the threat. if the aztecs felt that it was really a minor thing, then only a small force would be sent. the bigger the threat, the larger the army. keach: the aztecs could assemble an army larger than anyone else, so they usually won their battles. they conquered this town, malinalco, in 1476. but a large army was not their only advantage. the aztecs also developed several unique administrative and political techniques to expand and control their empire. one technique was to erect fortifications and maintain garrisons at critical points within and along the border of the empire.
malinalco was one of those garrison towns. here, troops were quartered so they could respond quickly to any threat in the neighborhood. but the aztecs were also able to expand the empire without resorting to brute force. when the aztecs won a battle, they sent messengers back to the capital with this information, and of course this would be spread to all the towns along the route. then when the aztec army would march back, they very often would go through areas in which there were still independent towns. now, if you were the king of a town of, say 5,000, and the aztecs wheeled up to your door with an army of 20,000 battle-hardened, immediately successful veterans, bringing with them the booty of a sacked town and perhaps hundreds of captives for sacrifice, the prudent king is likely to accede to the aztec demands that they become members of the empire. keach: becoming members of the empire
boiled down to one essential activity -- paying the aztecs tribute. tribute was the business of the aztec empire, the real purpose behind their warfare and expansion. the aztecs exacted tribute from everyone, and they did it in several ways. as the empire grew, kings enlarged the great temple at tenochtitlan. and when they did, rededication ceremonies signaled a time for tribute. archaeologists discovered caches of tribute buried inside successive versions of the temple. one included these stone soldiers found leaning against the stairs. offerings came from all over the aztec empire -- gold and silver jewelry, jade masks, pottery and sculpture. interpreter: the majority of the objects
found in the offerings were from areas that were controlled by the aztecs. one of the offerings that we found in front of the templo mayor consisted of skulls of sacrificial victims that had small knives placed in the nose and in the mouth. keach: the aztecs were not above requiring sacrificial victims as tribute. sometimes they would even specify that the victims must be the friendly neighbors of the conquered state. they knew this would drive a wedge between their neighbors and discourage them from ganging up on the aztecs. a stone skull rack was discovered in the plaza of the templo mayor. archaeologists think it was meant to remind people of the actual rack on which the aztecs mounted hundreds, sometimes thousands of fresh skulls after each sacrificial ceremony. the skulls were another form of intimidation intended to keep tribute-paying provinces in line.
the national archives in mexico city contain a number of tribute documents from the 16th century. offerings on special occasions were a small part of what conquered states owed the aztecs. the tribute demands of the aztecs are recorded here in the "codex mendoza." this page shows the tribute owed by the town of teapequacuilco, denoted by this town glyph. now, each of the tribute obligations is denoted by a picture, so it's very clear what is being required. for instance, five strings of jade beads, because there are five depicted. however, they also use their own numbering system. in the case of these copper axes, they use the symbol, a flag, which stands for 20. and in this case with 5 flags they are demanding 100 copper axes. warrior uniforms and shields in the amounts of 1 each
and then amounts of 20 each are demanded. this symbol, a feather, represents 400. now, if they want to modify that, for instance, we have here a colored mantle, and 400 are being demanded. but these are fingers representing one each. so they're not demanding 400 here, but in fact, 402 cotton mantles. 40 jaguar skins, 1,600 bales of raw cotton, 80 bird skins, 1 bin of corn and 1 bin of the grain chia. 8,000 containers of chocolate. the amount a province or a town was assessed in tribute depended in large part on the difficulty the aztecs had in conquering you in the first place. if you acquiesced to aztec demands immediately, your tribute assessment was typically fairly modest. if, however, the aztecs had to raise an army to go to war
before you would agree to be a tributary, then the amount you paid went up. and this tribute amount was negotiable almost throughout the entire process from the point they made a demand to the point they actually sacked and burned your town. keach: most of the tribute the aztecs demanded had to be delivered to tenochtitlan, where the kings kept some and redistributed the rest. the tribute system gave the king enormous power which he could use to mount new campaigns of conquest or to reward successful warriors and loyal subjects. or the king could use the tribute in the form of labor for his own pleasure. in the middle of the 15th century, this mountain served as a retreat for the king nezahualcoyotl. here he enjoyed more than 400 acres of terraced gardens
still cultivated today by aztec descendants. high above the valley, the king could take in the view from several royal baths, one of which was carved right into the hillside. the baths were continuously filled and the gardens irrigated by a series of aqueducts that carried the water more than eight miles from a mountain spring. for william sanders, the retreat is direct evidence of the power held by aztec kings. sanders: down below me in the flat plain of the valley of mexico is the modern town of texcoco. and that's where the king's permanent palace was located, which was a very large structure according to one of the sources of the 16th century --
had several patios and several hundred rooms surrounded by an enormous wall. apparently, he decided he needed a place to get away from it all, to get away from the business of state, from the cares of state, and so he built these pleasure gdens out here, three or four kilometers from his capital. only with extraordinary power can a ruler build himself something like this. it reflects the fact that the kings had hundreds of thousands of men available for labor projects of this type. it's perhaps one of the best indicators of political power that we have for the aztec period. keach: the builder of the gardens, nezahualcoyotl, was one of the most famous kings in mexican history. he was an accomplished warrior, but he was also a man of letters who maintained a large library. he supported astronomers and scholars, and was a patron of the arts.
it is said he had concert halls in his palace where singers and actors performed. sanders: he was a great philosopher and poet himself. there is one poem that i remember in part. "all the earth is a grave, and naught escapes it. "nothing is so perfect "that it does not fall and disappear. "the great rivers start from their joyous beginnings "and never return." keach: but it was war, not poetry, that kept the tribute flowing to tenochtitlan. and so the aztecs realized they must have a leader who was primarily an effective warrior. the common tradition of royal succession throughout mesoamerica was from king to his oldest son. but the aztecs changed that. the point is that in order to be successful they had to have a king who was an active warrior. they could not have a boy 8 or 10 years old
ascend to the throne just because of some rule of primogeniture. so what they did is they elected among the royal lineage the man with the best qualifications as a warrior. keach: but that was not all. before the elected king was formally crowned, he was expected to launch a pre-inaugural raid -- a campaign against either a rebellious town or against towns not previously conquered. the raid would show that the man elected was in fact a competent military leader. this altar celebrates 11 conquests by the great aztec king montezuma i. but montezuma is not portrayed anywhere on the monument. instead, it celebrates 11 warriors, each shown subduing an enemy. in aztec society, it was not just the king who benefitted from warfare. the aztec society was unquestionably a strongly class-based society,
but it did allow for a certain amount of mobility. and this mobility was largely through success in war. a successful commoner could hope to achieve noble status by virtue of his deeds. keach: this form of social mobility was illustrated in 16th century documents. first, a poorly dressed novice takes a captive. when he takes another captive, he gets a more elaborate costume and better weaponry. taking still another, the warrior rises in rank, and so on -- a progression from novice all the way to the highest military rank. these rewards for success in battle were nominally handed out by the king himself. so each time you were successful, he would then reward you with a new costume of higher rank, and also with additional economic incentives -- perhaps mantles, which were wealth, rights to certain lands, and more goods. so as you went up, you gained not only in status but you gained economically as well. keach: the elected nobles
were often given important responsibilities. they would administer provincial capitals or garrison towns like malinalco. these new elite owed everything to the king, and so they proved reliable surrogates in remote places. elected nobles were also accepted into elite military orders like the eagle and jaguar knights. at malinalco, the eagles and jaguars had a shrine carved out of the rock face. like medieval knights, they were highly trained and experienced warriors who could change the tide of battle. the eagle knights were so important they had a large shrine right next to the templo mayor in tenochtitlan. when archaeologists uncovered the building, they found the entrance guarded by life-size statues of the warriors dressed in eagle costumes.
there were two military orders beyond the eagle and jaguar knights, but these warriors were considered somewhat unstable, even by aztec standards. these warriors considered the odds of about 20 to 1 to be about right. so they went into battle first, they came out of battle last, they did not retreat in the face of the enemy, and they were sort of the mesoamerican equivalent of shock troops. keach: encouraging elite warriors was of prime importance to the aztecs, but they also realized their war machine would go nowhere without an agricultural system that could support a large army. the aztecs' concern for agriculture was symbolized by the deities of water. although land for agriculture on the island of tenochtitlan was limited, there were thousands of acres of swamp bordering their lake. with a massive state-supported engineering project,
they turned the swamps into a unique and highly productive form of agriculture called the floating garden or chinampas. just outside mexico city, chinampas are still farmed by aztec descendants. interpreter: our ancestors were the aztecs. they made this. they worked hard to lay out these fields. we have continued to used the fields, but they made all of this. keach: the aztecs reclaimed the swampland by digging drainage canals and building up plots of land from weeds and mud. then they planted willow trees along the edges. the roots of the trees held the plot together. this whole area here, about 40,000 acres,
was a huge combination of lake and swamp. you can see how large this area is by just looking off to the south, because the lake extended all the way to the edge of those mountains over here. keach: all of the lake area around tenochtitlan was eventually turned into chinampas. this must have required the labor of thousands of people, but it was a labor that returned a large, useful dividend. sanders: this is one of the transport canals that the chinampa farmers use to haul their produce and to take their tools out to their fields. in the canal you can see this plant that's floating. it's a water lily. locally, it's called wachinango. and this is one of the keys to the success of chinampa farming. this reproduces very rapidly and it's used as fertilizer. they collect it with a pitchfork-like tool, fill up these boats, and they throw it up on the chinampa. and in five days of work, they can fertilize an entire chinampa.
and that's enough to crop successively all kinds of garden crops for 12 months out of the year. and then next year you go through the same process. keach: with chinampa agriculture, the aztecs could sustain a large population and draft armies larger than any competitor. agriculture was a key ingredient in a system that made the conquest state possible. by the turn of the 16th century, the aztec empire was a well-oiled machine that appeared unstoppable. in 1519, there were no evidences of any significant internal stresses in the aztec empire. it looked as though it was going to continue for at least another hundred years. in fact, they had contacted the highland maya as far away as guatemala -- had received token tribute from the king of the quiche, which always signalled the beginning of an expansion
of the aztecs into a new area. but then in 1519, hernan cortes arrives. the warriors of the sun god confront the soldiers of the cross. the empire collapses within two years, and mesoamerican civilization comes to an end. keach: more than a thousand years before the spanish conquest and the rise of the aztecs, another extraordinary civilization flourished in the jungles and forests of mexico, guatemala, belize and honduras. they were the maya. the similar layout of the maya cities, the style of architecture and sculpture, and the shared writing system led early archaeologists to assume the maya had formed a great empire like that of the aztecs. but that assumption soon evaporated as later archaeologists began uncovering details of maya political systems.
one city that has received extensive attention is copan, located on the western edge of honduras. it was once believed the maya were led by astronomer-priests who divided their time between ritual and plotting the stars. the 16 figures around this altar were thought to represent astronomers from various cities in the maya realm. it was believed that they were here in copan to adjust errors in the maya calendar. but once scholars began translating maya writing, they soon discovered the monument was erected by the 16th king of copan. it had nothing to do with the stars. archaeologist william fash. the point of this monument is to show that the 16th ruler derives his right to power from his descent from each and every one of these illustrious ancestors. in fact, what he's showing you here is that he's receiving the baton of office, the right to rule, from the very first ancestor, from the founder of the copan dynasty.
keach: archaeologists now believe that each city across the maya realm was ruled by its own king. this was not a single empire like the aztecs created, but hundreds of independent kingdoms existing side by side. but what power did these kings have, and how did they use it ? the royal precinct of copan is a kind of manmade acropolis, supporting enormous pyramids and temples. in its day, each building and plaza would have been coated with white plaster and painted in bright colors. maya kings had the ability to organize and manage the construction of great buildings. these projects consumed much of the kingdom's available resources and served to express the control the king had over his subjects. archaeologist robert sharer. obviously, these buildings were not built by the kings
or even the members of the elite, although we can expect that there were architects and craftsmen who were members of the elite class who planned these and may have done some of the detailed work to decorate these. but the basic labor, the moving of the fill and the cutting and movement of the stone and the placement of the stone, of course, this was all done by the labor provided by the sustaining population in the valley. and that isn't just the labor to build the buildings, but obviously these buildings had to be maintained continuously. they had to be replastered and repainted, protected against the weather. so this was an ongoing and continual process, a constant investment of considerable labor in this complex. keach: but it was not entirely a one-sided relationship. royal construction projects took place in the dry season, when people could not farm.
in return for their labor, the king provided his subjects with food. archaeologists believe the king of each maya city probably controlled a large piece of the best farm land -- land that could produce a surplus beyond the needs of his royal household. but no maya king controlled a large food producing system like the aztec chinampas. consequently, the real power of maya kings was limited. so it was natural that they sought to control their subjects in other ways. one of those ways is being explored by honduran archaeologist ricardo agurcia. agurcia is tunneling in the ruins of a huge pyramid built by the last king of copan. he believes the pyramid may contain a more complete building of an earlier king.
he first drove one tunnel northward from the main shaft and discovered the remains of a wall. these are the remains of earlier building on the acropolis. behind one of the walls, agurcia found another, and followed it farther inward and upward toward the heart of the pyramid. agurcia: the next thing we knew, we hit this incredible building. keach: what agurcia found astounded him -- the roof of a buried building, decorated with elaborate plaster sculpture. but before he can interpret the imagery, he must first deal with more urgent problems. we have a number of problems with dealing with this. one is the working conditions,
because the air is so thin and tight in here that i'd like to come in with tunneling from the exterior so we can get better ventilation and be able to work with greater ease, ease the heat and get us some more oxygen. the other thing is that we are so close up to this giant mass that it's hard to interpret. it's hard to get a feel for the message on it. we are exposing so little of it, and this was designed, this was made to be seen from a long distance. this was a big building. we are talking something that probably went up as high as 4 or 5 stories on a modern building. so it's hard to be able to decipher the message from this close and seeing so little of it. we're going to need a lot more exposure. keach: agurcia's team continued digging, extending and enlarging the tunnels. finally, they uncovered enough of the facade to make sense of the sculpture. the lower floor supports two plaster masks,
once painted in bright colors. at the center of this mask we have what's called god "d", also known as itzam 'na, which was a principal deity of the maya cosmos. he is coming out of the mouth of a bird which is probably the celestial bird. and as we move into the upper register, we have another complex scene. basically, we have two snakes, and into the mouth of the one that's facing up is descending the representation of keene or the sun. reflecting, i think, also that we are on the west side of the building, and therefore this is the side where the sun descends into darkness at the end of every day. keach: so far, all the imagery uncovered on the building has some kind of religious message. the king is telling his subjects that he has special access to the supernatural world of gods and revered ancestors. archaeologists believe religion
and the control of religious symbols was a major source of royal power. but this power lacked coercive force, like the aztecs used, to back it up. maya royal power relied heavily on faith, a faith that needed constant reinforcement. one way in which maya kings reinforced their connection with the gods was through ritual performance. this monument, called a stela, commemorates a ritual performed on the 26th day of july, a.d. 736. on that day, the king of copan dressed in a skin that was flayed or removed from another human being. william fash. we see him dressed in the flayed skin of a captive
that he has sacrificed on this occasion in a symbolic reference to the fact that every rainy season when the earth turns green again it also acquires a new skin of vegetation. keach: managing and manipulating symbols was of major importance to maya kings. it was a way to enhance their prestige and to create an image of power. every activity, every venue in the city, had its symbolic component -- even the games played in the ball court. almost all maya cities had at least one ball court. copan had two. no one knows for sure how the ancient maya played the game, but in mexico today a number of variations still exist. two teams face off and hit a rubber ball back and forth, using only their hips. the idea is to keep the ball in play. in an ancient painting,
the maya are shown playing the game. only kings and nobles participated, so the player's dress, though likely uncomfortable, was an indication of high status. linda schele is an epigrapher, a scholar who translates hieroglyphs and interprets maya art. now, this is, on the one hand, the sports arena, but on the other hand it's a great container for royal theater. most of all, for the king, it is a place of public performance. that performance is on sometimes the level of sports. but if you think sort of like the world cup, the great soccer championship, or the olympics, or the final four in college basketball -- those are sports, but they're also an arena for politics. the president of the united states throws out the first ball in baseball.
it's where politicians come to be seen. the stairway that's on the front of the great acropolis there, not only is a method of getting up to the acropolis, but it's great bleachers. this is like a greek amphitheater or like the houston astrodome. and if you can think of them not as it is now with grass and trees but with plaster all over the stairs, painted red and full of people, the sounds of musicians and the sounds of crowds and roars the play goes back and forth across the field -- sometimes the king participating as a player, if he was particularly young and nimble, and sometimes observing from afar as his team and opponents played out the game. keach: for the ancient maya, the ball court was not just a place to spend a pleasant afternoon. it was also an arena for a deadly form of theater. captives from neighboring cities were sometimes forced to play.
they of course were pre-ordained to lose and were then killed in a sacrificial ceremony. the ancient maya viewed the ball game as a metaphor for the struggle of good against evil, in which the king is hero. it was the king who personally captured the victim-players. so the ball court provided another opportunity for maya rulers to focus public attention on themselves. archaeologist arthur demarest. these maya ceremonial centers were giant stages. they were theaters in which the rituals of the maya state were displayed. the sacrifices, the bloodlettings, the ball games -- all of these things were mechanisms by which rulers tried to reinforce their power to generate greater prestige through ritual display. but it's a weak source of power. it's the power of an evangelist preacher, rather than the kind of economic power that you see
in states like the aztec. keach: but even power based on belief did not come without risk. all maya kings were expected to put their prestige on the line in regular tests of warfare. the maya were almost continuously at war with each other, as these ancient wall paintings illustrate. but until recently the popular view, even among scholars, saw the maya as a peace-loving people. archaeologist david webster. this was part of what we called the mystique of the maya. they maya are different from other people. they are unique. they don't behave the way other people do. of course, most complex pre-industrial societies are plagued with warfare. and the question was in my mind years ago, why should the maya ever have been different ? keach: archaeologists soon discovered the maya were not that different. evidence of war and captive taking began turning up in many cities.
this drawing of a stela shows a king standing on the stripped and bound ruler of a neighboring kingdom. the decapitated remains of sacrificial victims are often found buried under royal buildings. some of the human skulls discovered at copan have been intentionally reworked into something else. physical anthropologist rebecca storey. it didn't take much looking at them to see, of course, that they have been deliberately modified. this one here, of course, has been cut. there are drill holes in these. we don't naturally have those kind of holes in our skull. there are evidences of cut marks where they might have removed flesh or skin from the individual. these are probably the remnants of individuals killed in battle. and in order for them to remember or commemorate their victory over this individual, they would take his skull and make it into a mask.
now, they undoubtedly did this so that it could be used as a mask either to hang right here or as an actual mask. we also know that he had an elite rank, probably, because of the jade inlay in the teeth usually found only with maya nobles. keach: on one level, maya warfare was the sport of kings and nobles. they would raid a neighboring city to capture a few high-level people for public sacrifice. the higher the rank of the captives -- other rulers are best -- the more prestige the king would accrue back home. but this kind of warfare may well have had another function. when you have fairly constant episodes of warfare between a lot of closely juxtaposed independent centers, one of the functions of these warfare episodes is clearly to test for the resolve and military organization of your opponents.
and so you may have a lot of almost ritualized looking fighting which might result in some capture of sacrificial victims. but the main function of it might be sort of boundary maintenance, display -- expressing to your enemies that you have a lot of allies, that you can muster warriors, that your elites are powerful men, and that they should not fool around with you. keach: despite the fact that maya kings were often at each other's throats, they still managed to carry on enduring social and diplomatic relationships. like the royal families of europe, maya kings shared a common culture that crossed political boundaries. kings visited one another, exchanged gifts and formed alliances. archaeologists have plotted these visits that were often recorded in hieroglyphs. some of the kingdoms are fairly close together -- others hundreds of miles apart. maya kings and elite not only visited one another --
they also intermarried. for a king, marriage had more than the usual benefits. marriage to a woman from a powerful family could ensure the loyalty of that entire family, perhaps hundreds of people. and maya kings could have many wives at the same time. so through good marriages, they accumulated greater power. but even for a king, marriage is never foolproof. early in his life, the king of this maya city, yaxchilan, married a woman from a powerful local family. all went well until the king, whose name was shield jaguar, decided to marry again, this time to a foreign woman. schele: shield jaguar, in his old age, married a beautiful young woman named lady evening star. in his 62nd year of life, she gave birth to a son -- a son which he apparently
doted on and loved more than anything, perhaps because it brought with this child alliance with this very powerful kingdom, and he wanted that child to succeed to the throne. keach: shield jaguar tried to lend prestige to his favorite son by erecting stelae on which both are shown performing important rituals. he wanted that son of his late years to be his heir, but the woman of his early years had vested interest in having one of her own children become king. keach: after the old king died, his favorite son was forced to spend nearly 10 years warring with the supporters of his stepmother before he could finally take the throne. unlike aztec rulers, maya kings spent much time in warfare that benefitted only themselves, and perhaps a small group of nobles. because their roles often lacked strong utilitarian functions,
maya kings were not indispensable. this is illustrated by a shocking event which occurred to one of the great kings of copan. archaeologists call him eighteen rabbit, which is simply the literal translation of his name glyph. the glyph shows the maya symbols for the number eighteen, along with a stylized picture of a rabbit. eighteen rabbit was one of the most media conscious of maya kings. his likeness is carved into almost every stela in copan's great plaza, which he also built. each stela shows the king in the guise of a different maya god. the hieroglyphs on the back and side describe the ritual he is shown performing. he is the same king who performed the flayed skin ritual. less than a year after that ritual, eighteen rabbit traveled to the small maya kingdom of quirigua, some 50 miles from copan.
some think he went to quirigua on a raid to capture sacrificial victims, but something goes wrong. the king of quirigua, one cauac-sky, erects a giant stela claiming to have performed the axe event on the king of copan. eighteen rabbit is captured by cauac-sky, who sacrifices him in 738 and then never ceases to brag about it afterwards. all of his monuments -- which become much larger and more grandiose, even though his political system is a fairly small one -- mention the fact that he captured the glorious king of copan, eighteen rabbit. keach: by erecting stelae, cauac-sky capitalizes on the sacrifice. his prestige increases and his tiny kingdom grows, but he does not take over copan. he simply does not have the manpower to conquer the larger kingdom. at copan, not much happens.
life for most people goes on as before. a new king is installed, but he keeps a low profile. he erects no temples or stelae. but archaeologists imagine that behind the scenes the royal family is busy trying to figure out how to restore their lost prestige. they settle on an imaginative scheme -- a media campaign and a grand building project. the building is a pyramid with a magnificent stairway. the steps are inscribed with hieroglyphics, 1,300 in all, making this the longest carved text in the new world. when earlier expeditions came to copan, they found the hieroglyphic stairway fallen into a jumble. one expedition rebuilt the stairway,
but their effort resulted in an assembly of hieroglyphs that were out of sequence and made no sense. artist barbara fash has been drawing each glyph on the stairway in an effort to reassemble them in correct order. fash: we've been doing this now for over the past 10 years, recording what's left of the hieroglyphic stairway. as you can see, it's deteriorating very rapidly, and we're losing very important information. what we're hoping to do is be able to put it in order, and that way we'll be able to have a better idea of what the hieroglyphic stairway actually said. keach: fash's work is already paying off. it is now clear that this is a kind of ancient media blitz -- a stone billboard recalling all the great deeds of copan's kings,
including eighteen rabbit. it was propaganda, and it was probably effective. the royal dynasty continued, and the king who built the stairway lived a long and prosperous life. but to william fash, the king is trying to compensate for a serious problem. the mere fact that he would have to go to such enormous lengths and produce this grandiose statement just to regain the confidence of his people to me does not show strength in the system. to me it indicates a fatal flaw. if you put all of your eggs in the basket of the king and you depend on him, and you depend on his charismatic rulership, you depend on his prowess as a warrior, and then, you know, he fails you in a dramatic sort of way as the thirteenth ruler apparently did, then you've got a real serious problem, not just with that ruler, but with the system in general. keach: the problem was a political system heavily dependent on leaders who for the most part had little to offer beyond ritual, image and propaganda.
but there were exceptions. in a remote jungle, arthur demarest and a team of archaeologists are investigating a maya kingdom that like the aztecs expanded through warfare and conquest. they are working at dos pilas, in the peten region of guatemala. during the reigns of just four kings, dos pilas exploded from a small settlement to become one of the largest kingdoms in maya history. the conquered territory included older and more established kingdoms like seibal. this is a very important war monument. it commemorates one of the greatest victories in the dynastic expansion of dos pilas. you see here the king of seibal, stripped, bound, humiliated -- and he is being tortured and bled.
the text records that he was decapitated here in the plaza area of dos pilas. and standing on him, the king of dos pilas, symbolizing the conquest by dos pilas of this very important city in the pasion river valley. keach: throughout maya history, kings have attempted to expand beyond the boundaries of their individual kingdoms. but these attempts were often short-lived or completely unsuccessful. would dos pilas prove the exception ? in the domain of dos pilas was punto de chimino, located on a peninsula jutting into lake petex patutun. here there's a break in it where it drops down into this little bay. keach: while surveying the region, demarest discovered that what at first looked like a natural ravine
was in fact a manmade channel, a kind of moat, like those that encircled medieval castles. you can see where the moat was. originally, the water would have run all the way across to the other side where you can see the sky. keach: the moat was apparently designed to cut off the peninsula from the mainland, making it a highly defensible island. on the city side of the moat, demarest found the earth built up into a long, steep incline. demarest: see how steep this is right now, how difficult to come up. it was probably originally almost vertical. and it would have been much more difficult if you had some maya up at the top hurling spears and rocks down on you. keach: the archaeologists think that for further protection there would have been a tall wooden fence on top of the embankment. demarest: this whole thing seems to almost like overkill. you know, the degree of defensive construction
is beyond what you would have thought was necessary. i think it emphasizes how things by this point had fallen to pieces in this region. keach: demarest believes the moat and fortifications are evidence that the dos pilas empire was coming apart at the seams. demarest: the territory was more than double the size of a standard large maya kingdom. so administratively it was beyond the capability of normal maya political organization and military organization. keach: in a.d. 760, two of the conquered kingdoms stage a revolt. they capture the king of dos pilas, drag him from city to city, and then sacrifice him in the usual fashion.
the killing sends the entire region into a scale of warfare seldom seen among the maya. every city goes to war against its neighbors. in the end, all the cities in the region are destroyed and abandoned. at the once thriving city of dos pilas, surviving inhabitants tear apart the buildings and reuse the stones to construct defensive walls. but these efforts are in vain. the city would be destroyed and disappear into the jungle. in some ways, the expansion of the dos pilas kingdom through warfare was a great experiment on the part of the dos pilas kings. they attempted to move beyond the normal territory of conquest. but they did so without really changing anything fundamental in maya political or economic systems. and as a consequence, they failed.
the bubble burst very dramatically, and then the fall of the dos pilas kingdom was even more rapid than its rise. keach: even if the dos pilas expansion had succeeded, their kingdom would have been tiny compared with the territory conquered by the aztecs, who controlled an area of some 80,000 square miles. no maya kingdom expanded beyond a few thousand square miles. but despite their inability to expand, maya rulers often served well the needs of their individual kingdoms. their role inspired a universal culture that crossed political boundaries and produced extraordinary works of art, an intricate writing system, and a religious life of immense complexity.
the achievements of the aztecs cannot be minimized by their own ignoble end. they were the only people in mesoamerica able to support a population large enough to overcome their own oppressors and assemble a great empire. they were brutal warriors, but their reliance on the perception of power and their political and social flexibility foreshadowed societies of today. captions by captionamerica, pittsburgh, pa.